The great Coley Park black poplar was, for me at least, one of the most iconic trees in Reading.
I discovered a few black poplars back in the mid-1980s and, after a lot of observation, concluded that five of them were likely to be the ultra-rare wild black poplar. Black poplars are reasonably commonly planted.
There are many forms; the Lombardy poplar is tall and thin, of an enviable height, and has been known to be quite handsome in a certain angle and a certain light. The matchbox poplar is planted in groups, and is also tall, but broader, and is supposed to have been harvested for matches and matchboxes. It was undercut by the ubiquitous plastic lighter which nearly put match-makers out of business. These poplars are now left to grow old.
There are other varieties too, found in parks around town, but they are prone to rotting and decaying, and get cut down before they fall or shed a huge branch.
The wild variety is rare though, and probably doomed. It no longer has the chance to breed as there are almost no wild females. They produce such copious fluffy seeds in spring that they became a nuisance and were felled. Not only that, but even if they did find partners, there is none of the moist muddy river sediment left behind after the winter floods for the seeds to germinate in.
So my discovery of five wild black poplars was a bit of a milestone because, at the time, we believed that there were fewer than a thousand left in the UK. More have been found since those days, and there may be 10,000, but that still isn’t a lot. Then the 1987 hurricane took one and within days it was gone, cut up, carted away and burnt.
Three more went down in the 1990 Burns night storm. These latter three were left alone, unlike the hurricane victim. Our urge to tidy after the 1987 catastrophe was seen as a mistake, so a lot of trees were left where they fell after that storm had reached its howling crescendo during the morning of 25 January.
The three fallen poplars soon put on new growth and remain to this day happily alive and full of vigour. The prostrate trunks have rooted and the old branches have become new trunks. The trees may not have the stature they once had – they were all huge – but they still thrive.
I had been clearing fallen trees on the roads that morning of the Burns night storm, and windblown debris almost struck me many times. I saw sheets of corrugated tin fly overhead, and the tiles on Katesgrove rooves ruffle like feathers on a bird. A gargoyle came off Christ Church and landed in the driver’s seat of a little red car.
A massive black poplar fell near the lodge in Coley recreation ground. The trunk is there to this day, although I’m not sure if it was a wild one or not.
The one remaining tree, in a line of ancient London planes near Coley Park Farm, was a personal talisman. I planted one of its branches in the soft earth after the Burns night storm tore it off. It rooted and grew in the shade.
I’ve sat on another larger fallen branch, with my flask of coffee, during many walks over the Coley meadows. I took photos of it from afar and close up, in winter and summer. As I walk over those meadows a couple of times a week at least, I have become accustomed to it dominating the skyline of Katesgrove. The repaired steeple of Christ Church was always just behind it.
And then after storm Ciara passed in February 2020, it was gone. I rushed across the meadows, and there it lay, smashed; huge rips in the massive branches, great piles of twigs in the grass, and a great stump was all that remained in the ground. The sapling I planted in 1990 was buried beneath it, too.
Naturally, I am sad, but there is nothing to be done. Storms come and trees fall; this one has snapped, and I’m not sure if any of it will remain alive. For now it is more shocking than coming across a beached whale at the coast.
I knew and loved this tree for 35 years and, more importantly, I met someone else who loved it too. I doubt many people knew it was a special tree, but Geoff Sawers did, and when I found out he knew about it I wrote to him and we made a date to meet under it. He went on to illustrate The Shady Side of Town, so without this tree, that book would never have happened.
Goodbye to the Coley Park black poplar, possibly one of Reading’s finest trees.